FGM victims are fewer, but younger and more severely injured

FGM victims are fewer, but younger and more severely injured

Urban women are more likely to be circumcised at the youngest age range of 5-9 years than rural women

Girls are undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) at increasingly younger ages and suffering more severe injuries, even if the practice is increasingly unpopular, a review of data by Nation Newsplex reveals. 

As the world marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, statistics reveal the war against the practice is far from over, with a trend over time to circumcise girls at increasingly younger ages.

The practice causes significant health risks, including bleeding, infections, and fistula, complications during sexual intercourse and childbirth, and even death.

According to UNICEF, 9.3 million women and girls, or 27 per cent of all women and girls in Kenya, have undergone genital mutilation, placing Kenya 17th among the 29 countries in Africa that carry out the practice.

Chances that a girl will undergo the cut if her mother has also been cut are 96 times as much as if the mother is uncircumcised.

New data from the 2014 Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) shows that 21 per cent or one in five Kenyan women and girls aged 15-49 have been circumcised, an 11 per cent drop from 11 years ago.

Among circumcised women, 28 per cent of those aged 20-24 were circumcised at five to nine years old, while 17 per cent of those aged 45-49 were circumcised at the same young age.

Girls and women living in rural areas are twice as likely to be circumcised as their urban counterparts. However, urban women are more likely, at 34 per cent, to be circumcised at the youngest age range of 5-9 years than rural women, at 24 per cent.

In both urban and rural areas, more than three-quarters of the circumcised women interviewed were cut before their 15th birthday.

The age of circumcision varies among communities and religions. About 73 per cent and 50 per cent of girls in the Somali and Kisii communities respectively are cut in the youngest age range.

Muslim women are much more likely to be circumcised at age 5-9 (65 per cent) than Christian women (22 per cent). By region, women in the Coast are the most likely to have been circumcised before age five (22 per cent).


Communities that circumcise children at a younger age may do so because it is easier to reduce public scrutiny, while taking advantage of their inability to resist.  “They know that when the girl reaches the school going age, she will refuse to undergo the cut because she is aware of the dangers involved, says Agnes Kola, a programme manager at ActionAid.

“In some counties like Taita Taveta we have noticed that infant FGM is being practiced on days-old girls. This is because they want to keep it a secret and therefore do it fast enough before the law catches up with them,” she adds.

An overwhelming 81 per cent of women and girls who have heard of the practice thought it was not beneficial. The most popular reason for supporting the practice was social acceptance, which was cited by eight per cent.

Preservation of virginity was next (five per cent), followed by better marriage prospects and cleanliness or hygiene, both of which tied at three per cent.

According to a 2013 United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report, one in three women who have undergone the cut did not see the benefits of the procedure, suggesting that social attitudes are changing.


Support for FGM is low among both women and men, even in communities were the practice is almost universal. Among people who are aware of it, only six per cent of women and nine per cent of men believe that circumcision should continue.

Yet despite negative public opinion, the practice remains strong among hard-to-reach populations − poor, uneducated rural women steeped in ethnic social practices. 

“The older group will denounce it when in public gathering but promote it in privacy.”

Girls from the poorest households are eight times more likely to have undergone circumcision as those from the richest homes. The majority of women who have undergone the procedure are also uneducated. A girl aged 14 years and below whose mother has no education is eight times more likely be circumcised as one whose mother has completed secondary school.

Chances that a girl will undergo the cut if her mother has also been cut are 96 times as much as if the mother is uncircumcised.

While the practice is fast declining overall, it remains stubbornly high in some communities. Majority of women among the Somali (94 per cent), Samburu (86 per cent), Kisii (84 per cent), and Maasai (78 per cent) are circumcised.


In contrast, two per cent or less of Luo, Luhya, Turkana, and Mijikenda or Swahili women are circumcised.

Kola says that prevalence is also high in communities like the Kisii and Meru (31 per cent) even though they are not remote and have large numbers of educated women, because the two counties hold FGM in high value. 

“We are also seeing a resurgence of FGM in some counties that had done away with it and it is mainly being driven by people who are coming back home to reinstitute cultures including the negative ones,” she says.

She says many women believe that FGM is a social rite of passage which must be adhered to because without the cut, the community which practices it shuns you.  Taboos associated with not being circumcised pile pressure on them, making the cut more of a survival tactic. which is passed from one generation to the next.

While young men increasingly understand that FGM is a violation of women’s rights and shun it, older man are more stubborn. “The older group will denounce it when in public gathering but promote it in privacy,” she says.

Socialisation also plays a big role. “You find that due to socialisation a man will not accept an uncircumcised woman. Women will do it in secrecy because they feel that if they do not go through the cut something wrong will happen - they will not be able to get a man,” says Kola.


When religion is considered, Muslim women and girls are twice as likely to be circumcised as their Christian counterparts.

Muslim women also are more likely to have had the type of circumcision in which their genital area is sewn closed (30 per cent) than women from all other religious groups (4 to 6 per cent).

More than three quarters of female circumcisions in Kenya are done by traditional birth attendants although there is evidence that the procedure is becoming more medicalised.

According to KDHS data, 20 per cent of girls aged 14 and under who underwent the procedure were circumcised by either a doctor or nurse, compared to 15 per cent of girls and women aged 25-49.

The Unicef study titled, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, suggests the increase is due to the fact that parents are seeking ways of making it safer even if it is illegal for Kenyan medical personnel to perform the procedure on girls.

In addition, the study warns that more and more girls in Kenya suffer the most severe form of FGM. Through this procedure the labia are sewn together to create a type of seal, with or without excision of the clitoris, resulting in near-complete covering of the urethra and the vaginal orifice, which must be reopened for sexual intercourse and childbirth.


The practice is not only a human rights violation but also poses serious health risks to the girls. Short-term complications include infections, bleeding and delayed or incomplete healing. Long-term consequences, especially in the severe type of cut (infibulation) may include damage to adjacent organs, sterility, and recurring urinary tract infections, formation of cysts, birth complications and even death.

A law prohibiting FGM, the Children’s Act, was passed in Kenya in 2001.Ten years later, Kenya passed the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2011 that banned female genital mutilation nationwide. Under this law, it is illegal to practice FGM in Kenya or to take someone abroad for it.